On the surface, it would be easy to view Joan Osborne's performance Saturday for an outdoor taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour as a homecoming of sorts.
After all, the Kentucky connection is strong. She hails from the Louisville suburb of Anchorage, and she makes her way back to the region for family visits. But nearly all of her professional life has been spent in New York, from her formative years as part of a fertile blues and soul music community to a career that yielded the monster mid-'90s radio hit One of Us ("What if God was one of us ..."). Never mind that she later hit the big screen, singing with some smoking soul music vets from Detroit. This New Yorker is very much in tune with her Kentucky heritage.
"Certainly there was country music around me growing up, and bluegrass music," Osborne, 49, said by phone earlier this week. "I remember going to see Bill Monroe as a child. But I don't know if it was a musical education as much as it was a way of looking at the world that my growing up in Kentucky afforded me."
The early New York years would figure prominently not only in Osborne's potent vocal command but in the songs she wrote and the professional company she kept. It also forms the foundation of her newest album, a collection of blues and R&B covers titled Bring It on Home. The record reteams Osborne with some of the first musical pals she made in New York: members of the celebrated soul/blues trio The Holmes Brothers.
"I met The Holmes Brothers when I was taking my first steps as a singer in the blues music that was happening in New York City back in the late '80s and early '90s," Osborne said. "They were sort of the kings of that scene and were incredibly generous and welcoming to me. It was wonderful to learn from them, be accepted by them and be respected by them as a fellow artist."
But the defining moment of Osborne's early career years came with the 1995 album Relish and its spiritually inclined alt-pop hit One of Us.
"That one song definitely dwarfed anything I had done up until that point just in terms of selling and radio play," Osborne said of the hit, which earned three Grammy nominations, landed Osborne on the cover of Rolling Stone and later was the theme song for the TV drama Joan of Arcadia. "It has also pretty much dwarfed anything I've done since. But it was also the thing that brought people into that Relish album as a whole.
"In a way, One of Us overshadowed other things I did. But it also helped me grow. My fan base goes deeper than that one song. I do shows now for people who have been fans for 15 to 20 years. And One of Us is not their favorite song, nor is it the only reason they are interested in me. But they know about what I do because of the visibility that one song gave me."
Osborne has collaborated with numerous artists since then, including The Dead (the surviving members of The Grateful Dead), Cheap Trick and the band of veteran Motown session men known at The Funk Brothers by way of the performance/ documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
"I walked into the trailer on the first day of filming, and they thought I was the makeup girl. They had no clue who I was. But there is a moment in the film when we're at a diner and the guys are breaking down the groove from I Heard It Through the Grapevine. They were banging spoons on sugar canisters and plates and cups and stuff. And yet the sound and the feel of the song was right there in what they were playing. So, of course, I started singing it. And they all kind of looked at each other, looked at me and we just had this really nice moment. It was like, 'OK, here we go. This is going to be really fun.'"
Saturday's WoodSongs co-bills Osborne with another Kentucky music star by the same last name: bluegrass titan Bobby Osborne. But the two artists are not related — or are they?
"Of course, I know of the Osborne Brothers," she said. "I've always wondered if there is some familial connection. When I look at pictures of those guys, they look just like my Uncle Eddie. I wonder if some kind of family tree is happening there. Maybe we will find out on Saturday."